The Science of Happiness


Psychology has spent much of its history researching and understanding mental illness, but there are only a handful of individuals who have contributed to the understanding of mental health and happiness.

Psychologist and writer Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive

Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillmenthas presented a new theory of happiness. He believes happiness is expressed in three forms: pleasure, engagement and meaning. Understanding the keys to happiness is an important part of successful aging in the third age.

Maintenance – Not part of the happiness continuum, maintenance is still an important component in living. These are simply the tasks of things that must get done. They do not bring a sense of happiness, but contribute to the overall well-being of an individual. They are necessary to function in the world. The key to happiness is to not spend all of one’s time bogged down in maintenance types of activities. Like most activities in the happiness model, one person’s poison is another person’s dream. Paying bills, cleaning, doing laundry may be maintenance tasks for you, but a real joy for others. Cooking is a great example of a task that fills some with dread, just look at the number of dinners spent at a fast food restaurant. But for some, cooking is almost a spiritual experience.

Pleasure – Pleasurable happiness is based on momentary bodily senses. The sensory organs are quite literally hooked to the brain to receive a positive emotion from touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, and bodily movements.

To understand this kind of pleasure, all we have to do is look at the amazing array of foods available in the world today. Nutritional needs can be met with very basic foods, but the desire for pleasure keeps us experimenting with new and different ways to tantalize the taste buds. Part of the reason for an overweight society is the pleasure we derive from food.

This helps explain addictive behavior connected to the senses. We live in a society where we are constantly bombarded with images and ideas that encourage us to seek pleasure. We now have people addicted to shopping, gambling, and extreme sports. Think about a casino with its bright lights, color bombarding you at every turn, music and alcohol all designed to create a pleasurable sense of being.

This is not to say pleasure is wrong or bad. Contrary to our puritanical ancestors, pleasure is an integral part of our being. It feeds our senses, which not only entices our brain, but can sooth our heart and heal our spirit. The harm comes when people fail to experience other forms of happiness.

Engagement – The second form ofhappiness is engagement. Seligman’s ideasof engagement come from the work of Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-ee), author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life

Flow is defined as the state of gratification that we enter when we feel completely engaged in what we’re doing. Flow contains a sense of exhilaration when we perform a task that requires complex abilities that leads to a challenging goal. It appears evolution has built the need for complexity in our nervoussystem. We experience enjoyment when we are challenged by a new activity that uses and stretches our talents. There is also a level of risk that takes us out of our comfort zone. Finding engaging activities has been a key to successful aging.

The key to this form of happiness is tapping into the unique activities that you personally find engaging. We don’t all become engaged in the same activities. Each of us has our own unique abilities and characteristics that make certain challenges engaging to us. It is through engaging in a challenging leisure activity that we get to express our personality. Gratification and happiness come from the joy of being able to express our identities in interesting activities, hobbies.

If self actualization means simply doing what you were cut out to do and is the highest form of expression of who you are and what you desire to be, then each of us have moments of self-actualization. Abraham Maslow identified these moments as peak experiences in . A person having a peak experience, as Maslow described them, is “more truly himself, closer to the core of his being, more fully human.” While few may attain a state of continuous self-actualization, everyone can have those moments where they live authentically.

Meaning- Beyond engaging in a fulfilling activity, there is another level of being to which people find happiness. Seligman refers to this as the level of meaning—when one connects to a higher purpose of life or calling. Living through purpose means connecting to something larger than yourself. This is a level of living that transcends the self or ego.

In The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, motivational leader Dr. Steven R. Covey writes that each one of us has a longing to “Live a life of greatness and contribute-to really matter, to really make a difference, to live a life of significance.”

Successful aging offers the opportunity to explore happiness in exciting and different ways. It allows you the time to explore activities, hobbies that challenge and stimulate you physically, intellectually and spiritually. It also allows you to the freedom to become useful in a whole new way. You can find meaning through being involved in your family, community, or even globally.

Authentic happiness is more than the title of a book. It provides a new way of thinking about how we live life. It provides the keys to successful aging.




About Cathy Severson

Cathy Severson helps baby boomers find more meaning and purpose in their lives and work. Get your copy of her complimentary e-book Guide to Retirement Activities a comprehensive look at work, volunteering and leisure based on an individuals’ personalities. Call for a complimentary 20-minute consultation to answer your most pressing concern. 928.775.4949 or email Cathy at

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